AQA GCSE Music for Film

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					AQA GCSE: Music for Film

This extract is from an article that was first published in Music Teacher [June 2001 issue]. To
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The AQA Music for Film Area of Study requires pupils to become familiar with music from
three contrasting genres of film:

   The Western: landscapes and peoples of the Americas
   Classic monster/horror-science fiction/fantasy film
   Thriller/spy films

This will enable pupils to explore extracts from the many excellent film scores by composers
such as Danny Elfmann, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Ennio Morricone, Rachel Portman
and John Williams, to name but a few. There are some suggestions for suitable repertoire
listed in the specification, but it will be possible to make use of any relevant film CDs, videos
or scores that are easily to hand, or whatever happens to be showing at the local „multiplex‟ or
on TV at the time, giving teachers the opportunity to make the GCSE course very much „of
the moment‟.

Exploring film music from the named genres is the means by which candidates develop
knowledge and understanding of, for example, ways in which musical elements, devices and
tonalities can interact with another medium to portray character and a sense of time and place,
or to create appropriate moods and atmospheres. The QCA-inspired emphasis on musical
„elements‟ is perhaps not always helpful, but there are many examples of film composers
being able to instantly establish the mood/feel of a film or character and there is real value in
exploring how they achieve this. Table 1 below outlines four contrasting cinematic worlds
within the relevant genres, and shows how the dramatic settings can be related to musical
elements in the scores.


Film &         Dramatic Setting/Genre         Musical Style/Features &           Musical Elements &
Composer                                      Key Tracks                         Conventions (Relating
                                                                                 to AQA ‘Musical
                                                                                 Language’ etc)
The Firm       Thriller set in Memphis        A jazz-dominated solo piano           Syncopation
(1993)         (based on a John Grisham       score. The „Main Theme‟               Blues scale
Dave Grusin    novel) about an idealistic     perfectly complements the             Riff/Ostinato
               lawyer joining his first law   deep south city setting, and the      Pedal
               firm, only to find that they   climactic „Mud Island Chase‟          Compound Time
               are a front for the Mafia.     provides a model for dramatic         Note Clusters
                                              use of unusual piano effects
                                              (both inside and outside the
The            Classic Western set in         The almost purely diatonic            Major
Magnificent    Mexico, with clear             „Main Titles‟ (apart from one         Syncopation
Seven (1960)   characterisation of good       characteristic major chord on         „Ornamentation‟
Elmer          versus evil.                   the flattened 7th degree of the       Tritone
Bernstein                                     scale) are one of the definitive      Dissonance
                                              „Western‟ sounds. The music           Cross rhythms
                                              representing the villain
                                               „Calvera‟ is in stark contrast,
                                               with dissonant, unstable
                                               harmony, prominent use of the
                                               tritone and aggressive use of
                                               acciaccaturas. Other themes
                                               provide a musical equivalent
                                               to the Mexican setting.
Planet of the    Science Fiction film set in   A groundbreaking, aggressive           Atonal
Apes (1968)      the future on a planet        film score. At times (eg „The          Bitonal
Jerry            where apes are intelligent    Hunt‟) the score feels like a          Discord/Concord
Goldsmith        and humans are treated        cinematic Rite of Spring. Other        Cross Rhythms
                 „like animals‟                passages (such as the „Main            Ostinato
                                               Title‟ and „Search‟ music near
                                               the start) use atonality (12 note
                                               at times) to portray the barren
                                               planet. There is significant use
                                               of unusual instrumental
                                               „effects‟: aluminium bowls;
                                               slide whistle; ram‟s horn etc

Pocahontas       Disney animated feature       Like many of the recent                Pentatonic
(1995)           set in the „New World‟        Disney films (especially those         Modal
Alan             and exploring the             with scores by Alan Menken),           Strophic
Menken           relationship between the      this is treated much like a            Leitmotiv
                 indigenous Native             musical. Much of the melodic           Drone (in the
                 American culture and          material is pentatonic („The            chorus section of
                 European settlers.            Virginia Company‟, „Steady as           „Mine‟)
                                               the Beating Drum‟) or modal
                                               („Listen with your Heart‟) and
                                               this, together with the
                                               orchestration, creates a strong
                                               musical sense of place. The
                                               „underscore‟ makes excellent
                                               instrumental use of motives
                                               from the various songs.

Listening to each of the above scores (and perhaps watching appropriate short extracts on
video) can be followed up with relevant compositional assignments. This would be most
effective if pupils devised music that could be performed with their peers, recorded and
subsequently appraised for its success in creating character or atmosphere (providing suitable
training for the Integrated Assignment). Pupils might, for example, be asked to:

               compose title music that gives a strong sense of time or place, perhaps involving
                some research into characteristic musical features
               compose themes using contrasting tonalities to represent different characters or
                groups in the manner of The Magnificent Seven
               compose music for a science fiction, horror or suspense sequence inspired by the
                unusual use of the piano in The Firm or the unconventional instrumentation and
                atonal/bitonal writing in Planet of the Apes.

At the recent joint National Association of Music Educators/Incorporated Society of
Musicians conference in London (reviewed in the April 2001 edition of Music Teacher)
Ofsted‟s specialist advisor for music, Margaret Martin Griffiths, argued the case for more non-
diatonic music to be part of pupils‟ experience. Music for film is one of the very few areas
where highly dissonant music has entered the general musical consciousness, and scores such
as Planet of the Apes or Psycho (Bernard Hermann, 1960) provide a useful starting point for
exploring such styles.

„The Hunt‟, one of the key sequences from Planet of the Apes, is included in the EDEXCEL A
level New Anthology of Music (see resources list). In the film this music accompanies a violent
sequence as mute humans are hunted through long grass by figures on horseback. The musical
and dramatic climax of the sequence (where the Ram‟s Horn enters, in a clearly different key
to the rest of the texture) comes as the audience realise for the first time that the figures on
horseback are apes. Despite the score‟s apparent complexity, the reliance on ostinati means
that it would be possible to adapt some parts for classroom ensemble and use these
experiences as starting points for compositional work (see Example 1).

Example 1

Director Tim Burton‟s new version of Planet of the Apes is due out this summer, with a score
by Danny Elfmann – it will be fascinating to compare the two composers‟ approaches to
similar dramatic material.

Performing as the starting point

If the above examples take listening/appraising as a starting point and move from there into
composing/performing activities, it is equally possible to reverse the process. School bands,
choirs and orchestras frequently play/sing music from films, and linking these activities to
GCSE study can be mutually beneficial, providing both a valuable resource for studying music
„from within‟ and a way to develop the aural awareness of the whole (and contextual
understanding) essential for genuinely musical performance. The new AQA assessment
criteria for performing encourage pupils to demonstrate “a sound understanding of period
and/or style …sensitivity to and control of the expressive and communicative features of the
music”. These skills can be developed by linking listening/appraising and performing
skills/understanding via the focus provided by the AOSs.

Individual pupils may well be learning to play material related to the AOSs, and this can allow
GCSE classes to experience relevant music live. Some pupils might also be „commissioned‟
to learn to perform extracts from film scores being studied in class: from the films listed in
Table 1, for example, Pocahontas offers several vocal opportunities, and the main title to The
Firm is within the capabilities of a good GCSE keyboard player. Each of these situations
provides opportunities to forge useful links between „curricular‟ and „extra-curricular‟
activities and between school and home.

The suggestions above are perhaps most likely to relate to „main titles‟, songs, or other stand-
alone film segments, as these tend to be most suitable for separate performance, but it is also
important to explore dramatic „underscore‟. This is not always so easy in performance terms,
as such music is often complicated and/or fragmentary, but some possibilities come to mind.

Example 2 (Capsule in Space) is taken from the opening scene of You Only Live Twice
(1967). John Barry‟s music not only captures instantly the „James Bond‟ sound, but is an
excellent example of dramatically appropriate film music based on individually simple ostinati
(a natural link to much Key Stage 3 work) which gradually pile up on top of each other as the
sequence intensifies. Example 2 has been adapted for classroom use, but contains virtually the
entire textural content of the music. Pupils could use this musical skeleton to rehearse a live
(or computer/keyboard sequenced) performance that could be performed alongside the film
with the sound turned down. Either the live or the ICT option could involve pupils making
creative decisions about:

            the type of instrumental sound to allocate to each part in order to achieve the
             most expressive, dramatically effective and well balanced performance possible
             with the available resources
            the octave to place each part in for maximum effect
            identifying the key moments in the drama and matching the order in which each
             element of the musical texture is introduced to these moments
            using dynamics to shape the dramatic effect
            setting an appropriate speed.

There is great scope for differentiation here – the task could be made complicated and
challenging if pupils were asked to time the visual sequence and work out an appropriate
metronome mark that would enable the start of the four-bar phrase (and hence the introduction
of new melodic ideas) to coincide with key moments in the drama. Pupils could then perform
to a „click track‟ (keyboard or other metronome played through headphones) and experience at
first hand one of the professional ways of working. (For reference, the music on the
soundtrack is at around crotchet = 98, although it speeds up slightly towards the climax. The
music is synchronised roughly to the key points, but without the ‘Mickey-Mousing’ exactness
found in cartoons).

It is worth considering that this performance based activity would enable pupils to gain
knowledge and understanding of several features from the AQA „Musical Language‟ list:
unison/octave; sevenths (a very characteristic John Barry sound); tempo; gradation of
dynamics; ground bass; ostinato; metronome marks; technical/emotional demands; interactive
media, plus several more.

The music for the James Bond films in general provides a rich heritage of material, not only
because of the quality of the dramatic „underscore‟ by composers such as John Barry and
David Arnold, but also because the title songs could provide a potted history of the Popular
Song since 1960 Area of Study (Shirley Bassey; Paul McCartney; Carly Simon; Duran Duran;
Tina Turner; Garbage etc). Several of these songs have become standards - a comparison of
the originals with, for example, the cover versions found on David Arnold‟s 1997 Shaken and
Stirred album would provide ample opportunities to help develop the understanding of the
„impact of ICT‟ required by the specification.

Example 2

Approximate         Key dramatic events
0’00”               An American ‘moon landing’ space capsule is orbiting the earth, in contact with
                    ‘Mission Control’
0’49”               One of the two astronauts opens the capsule hatch and goes out for a space walk,
                    still attached to the capsule via a lifeline
1’16”               Radar on earth picks up ‘something’
1’24”               Mission Control warn the capsule that an unidentified object is approaching
1’51”               The enemy spacecraft is sighted, closing on the capsule
2’07”               The shark-like front of the enemy craft starts to open to ‘swallow’ the American
2’39”               The enemy craft has completely swallowed the capsule and, in doing so, snaps the
                    lifeline of the space-walking astronaut, who spins off helplessly into space. Mission
                    Control try vainly to regain contact…
2’55”               End of sequence

1.   This 4 bar sequence repeats over and over again, starting with a single line and gradually adding the
     other parts at key moments in the drama
2.   The suggested instruments can be replaced by any available acoustic or synthesised alternatives
3.   The keyboard part can be split between two hands (with the left hand taking the first two notes of
     the first three bars) or could be played at half speed (crotchet triplets) to make a simpler version. If
     possible a sustaining pedal should be used to blur the sound in each bar.
4.   If desired, the coda/climax of the original score can be recreated by holding a (tremolo) G minor
     chord and repeating the first two bars of the ‘trumpet’ part four times.

Compositional Approaches

Asking pupils to invent music for short film sequences can provide a wealth of compositional
starting points - perhaps the most appropriate choices would be short, self-contained scenes
that can work purely visually (with the soundtrack/dialogue turned down). The climax to The
Thomas Crown Affair (1999) is an example, where the eponymous hero returns a stolen
painting to a museum (in full view of hordes of police and security guards who have been
warned to expect him) by filling the building with lots of identically dressed doubles, and via
an inventive plot device involving the sprinkler system.

Bill Conti‟s unusual score for this film is worth exploring in its own right, and provides
alternative models for ostinato/loop-based film scoring, ranging from the minimalist-inspired

modern jazz music associated with the hero to the more „dance‟ related drum/riff style that
accompanies the amateur thieves near the start of the film. GCSE pupils (especially those with
access to music technology) could profitably experiment with these techniques in their own
compositional work.

An interesting follow-up to this might be the AQA specimen paper for the Symphonic
Landmarks integrated assignment, which asks pupils to invent an arch shaped piece based on
repeating patterns after the model of the second movements of Beethoven‟s 7 th and Vaughan
Williams‟ 6th symphonies. This is but one of many possible links across the different AOSs.

There is unlikely to be sufficient time for pupils to watch extended extracts from films during
their GCSE lessons (although it would of course be hoped that study in school would spill
over into a greater awareness of music in films seen outside school), but it is worth giving
some consideration to the ways in which compositional techniques are used to provide
characterisation over the course of a film (or films). The film scores of John Williams provide
several useful examples. The motive that represents ET, the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) grows
throughout the course of the film, gaining a warmth that mirrors the growing relationship
between the space creature and the children who have „adopted‟ him. This growth can be
clearly seen by comparing the tracks „Three Million Light Years from Home‟, „ET and me‟
and „Flying‟, from the original soundtrack. Some of this material (The „Flying‟ theme and the
triumphant transformation of the original „Light Years from Home‟ motive that forms the
film‟s finale) is included in the EDEXCEL A level anthology.

The scores to the Star Wars movies provide plenty of examples of Leitmotif technique.
Compare the „Imperial March‟ that is associated with the evil Darth Vader in The Empire
Strikes Back (1980) with „Anakin‟s Theme‟ in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
(1999): the later film is a „prequel‟ to the earlier films, and Anakin Skywalker the innocent
boy who will one day become Darth Vader - the seeds of the „Imperial March‟ can be clearly
heard in „Anakin‟s Theme‟. (There are further possibilities for links here to the Orchestral
Landmarks AOS). Pupils could experiment (and build on KS3 „Variation‟ work) by, for
example, reworking the Indiana Jones theme (from the 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark and its
sequels) to portray the hero at the age of 95, or 6 months (see Example 3). Making use of this
tune would also enable pupils to develop an understanding of „slash chords‟, as listed in the
specification. Both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones sagas have further sequels due to be
released during the lifetime of the AQA specification.

Example 3








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